Will a Company Style Guide Give Your Documents a Unified Voice?

As a writer I love it when a client asks, “can you write according to my style guide?” It usually means that some of my questions about what the client wants are already thought of and answered. It usually means that I don’t have to reinvent the wheel. It also usually means the project will go more quickly and need fewer revisions.

When I was in the corporate documentation world, virtually every company that I wrote for had a corporate style guide. (This is where I get to blow my own horn and tell you that I even helped develop style guides for some of those companies.)

You might wonder why those large corporations would go to the trouble and expense of creating a document that basically does nothing more than describe their documents. If you own a business, even a small business, you might be especially interested in the benefits a company style guide can bring to your documents.

Here are four quick advantages that companies, even small companies, can expect to gain from using a company style guide:

Unified Voice

Unless a company only hires a single writer and that writer creates all the company’s documentation, there are going to be variations in writing style. As a company, you don’t want those variations to be obvious to the casual reader. In other words, you don’t want the end user of your documents to pick up your manual, your annual report, your proposal, or whatever it is, and say: “Look! Right here is where Susie stopped writing and Johnny started writing.”

Even worse, you don’t want the audience for your document getting confused by constant changes in the writing style of your documents. If it’s a proposal, they may just wind up tossing it and giving their business to someone else.

Product Branding

Using a company style guide can help protect your trademarks and product name registrations.

“How can a style guide help protect my trademarks?” You wonder.

Let’s imagine for a minute that my blog is a product and that I am hiring a writer to create press releases for it. (No, this is just an illustration. Don’t, I repeat don’t, contact me wanting to create press releases for me. It’s just an illustration.)

Anyway, for purposes of the illustration, how should the hypothetical writer refer to the name of my blog? Would they call it Writing Thoughts or WritingThoughts? Maybe they would call it The Writing Thoughts Blog or Laura Spencer’s WritingThoughts. Would they use upper case, lower case, or initial caps? WRITINGTHOUGHTS, writingthoughts, or WritingThoughts?

There are many variations. The truth is that, unless I give the writer specific instructions, they’re not sure how to refer to my product. If I’ve trademarked my product, it’s also very likely that there is a correct and an incorrect way to refer to it.

Now, multiply this confusion by a product line of, say ten products. You can see how misuse of trademarks and product registrations can easily creep into your documents.

If you own a business, save yourself the trouble of having to give specific instructions for each and every product each and every time it is documented. Include the information in your company style guide.

Company Image

You have a certain way you want to portray your company in your documents. This can include how documentation formatting questions like:

  • Font size and style
  • Paper type
  • Corporate colors
  • Use of graphics
  • Logos and slogans

Your company image may even include how the company is referred to in your documents. Do you refer to it and include a brief business description each time it’s used.
Your writers may, or may not understand these things. Yes, they should ask. Will they ask? Maybe, they will or maybe they won’t. If it’s me, I will definitely ask. Not all writers will think to ask, however. Save yourself a lot of time and worry.

Legal Issues

There may be warnings attached to some of your products. The phrases “keep out of reach of children” and “product may contain peanut pieces” are two warnings that come to mind.

The failure to put a warning on even a single piece of product documentation could lead to lawsuits and to the loss of real money for your company.

Save yourself a lot of worry. Include a requirement for these legal disclaimers in your company style guide.

So, now that we know about style guides, I challenge those of you who have companies to create a style guide for your documents.

For those of you who are writers, this information gives you another question to ask clients and potential clients: “do you use a company style guide?” If the client or potential client answers, “yes, we do have a style guide,” then great. You know that some things about the project will be spelled out for you. If their answer is “no,” you might just try asking them if they would like you to develop one for them.

Contents (c) Copyright 2007, Laura Spencer. All rights reserved.

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  1. [...] cited e.g. Toby Jones, Toby M. Jones, Mr. Jones or Dr. Jones etc. Laura at Writing Thoughts has an interesting post about business style guides for [...]

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